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Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch President Stephen Kopp, left, congratulates Joe Wortham as he is honored as Employee of the Year during Marshall University's 30th Annual Service Awards Luncheon on Thursday, June 26, 2014, in the Don Morris Room of the Memorial Student Center in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON -- The need to complete a school assignment for graduation meant Joe Wortham couldn't perform a work assignment on Nov. 14, 1970.

At that time, Wortham was a Marshall senior and a student assistant in the sports information office. Gene Morehouse, the sports information director, also did Thundering Herd radio broadcasts, so a student assistant would make football road trips to handle duties in the press box. The 1970 schedule listed Marshall at East Carolina that day and that meant boarding a plane instead of a bus.

Wortham had first choice for road trips, and the East Carolina game was most attractive, but he had to pass because the national teacher's exam he needed to graduate was scheduled that day as well. Student assistant Gary George made the trip instead.

Wortham, 57, now the concessions manager for Marshall athletics, took the exam and headed home to listen to the game on the radio. Marshall lost, 17-14. The chartered Southern Airways jet crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova on that rainy night and all 75 aboard died, including George and Morehouse, which hit Wortham hard.

"I was flipping through radio channels and heard a news flash (between 7 and 7:30 p.m.) that a DC 9 had crashed," Wortham said. "I knew the schedule and about the time the team was due back. Boom, my heart drops. I make calls to try and get more information. What I feared happened.

"I realized I was plain lucky. At the time (when the football schedule came out), I had a plum and got kind of upset I had to miss it."

Wortham and the rest of the Marshall and Huntington community learned there were no survivors. He volunteered to go to the airport and help identify bodies, but because of the fiery crash, the assignment couldn't be done so he headed home. Later he attended the memorial service at Veterans Memorial Field House.

Shortly after that, interim athetic director Ed Starling named Wortham as the interim sports information director. He had to finish a basketball media guide. A week after the crash, he boarded a plane with the basketball team for a game in New York. "That wasn't easy," he said. In 1972, Jack Yager became the SID and Wortham moved into the ticket office and eventually became ticket manager.

Wortham lost a lot of friends that day, one of the best being Morehouse.

"He was the sweetest, best person I've ever been associated with," he said. "He always found good in what you did. If you had a paper due, he said take care of the school work first, we'll get the job done. That's the type of person you love to work for."

The school resumed football in 1971 with the team known as the Young Thundering Herd. A long streak of losing seasons ended in 1984 when Marshall went 6-5. Since that time, the program' has enjoyed a continuous ascent.

"You run the gamut of emotion," Wortham said. "From the plane crash in 1970, to 1984 to now. A lot of people tried hard. The commitment level then and now made a difference. When you look at the university, community and state and see what's been done, it amazes me."

 

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